Not long from today, the training camp storylines and projections will be so much dust in the wind. Soon, it will be real. Can't wait.
Specifically, I can't wait to see these six things:
1. The rise of the team no one expects: I can't wait for a team that has no business being in the hunt jumping out to a great start and upsetting the proverbial apple cart. Maybe it'll be the clean-shaven Toronto Maple Leafs (doubt it, but what the heck?), or the Philadelphia Flyers under rookie head coach Dave Hakstol, or the Arizona Coyotes behind a reborn Mike Smith and a rejuvenated Dave Tippett. A year ago, the Calgary Flames did it and then never looked back, defying skeptics and critics and fancy stats all the way to the second round. I had the Winnipeg Jets somewhere south of Baja at the start of the season, but they played hard and competitive hockey all the way to their first playoff berth since moving back to the Peg. Regardless, a team is bound to surprise and it's going to make a heck of a story when it does. My best guess against my better judgment? How about the Buffalo Sabres?
2. Seeing how good Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel really are: Who isn't champing at the bit to see just how the Connor McDavid-Jack Eichel duel plays out? Two generational players whose fortunes will always be tied together, stepping into their NHL lives at exactly the same time. Hockey people have head-shaking admiration about the two that goes way beyond hyperbole and simply being nice. These kids are that good. But are they? That's what regular-season games will start to tell us. The assumption is that these two will be in a class by themselves when it comes to Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Maybe it turns out that way and maybe they push each other into the rookie stratosphere. But it's naive to think that these two players aren't going to have their rough spots. It's bound to happen. And it does a disservice in some ways to other top young players to suggest this is going to be a two-player race. What about Noah Hanifin, an elite defenseman who will get lots of chances to make a Calder case for the rebuilding Carolina Hurricanes? What about a Max Domi or possible linemate Anthony Duclair, both of whom will get a chance to pump up the Coyotes' offense? Or what about Pavel Zacha, all 6-foot-3 of this youngster who will get a good look at playing top-six minutes for the New Jersey Devils? But when colleague Craig Custance asked the game's top players in Toronto whether they liked McDavid, Eichel or the field for the Calder, not many "field" votes were cast.
3. Catching a rising goalie star: I can't wait to see which of the five or six inexperienced goaltenders who are with new teams this season are ready for prime time. So much is riding on Cam Talbot with the Edmonton Oilers, Martin Jones with the San Jose Sharks, Robin Lehner for the Sabres and, to a lesser degree, Eddie Lack with the Hurricanes, not only in terms of these goaltenders' futures but also the future of their franchises. Peter Chiarelli, the Oilers' new GM, and his counterpart Tim Murray in Buffalo rolled the dice that Talbot and Lehner are ready to shoulder full-time loads as starters and help two moribund franchises out of the wilderness. Talbot was spectacular in relief of Henrik Lundqvist last season, going 21-9-4 with a .926 save percentage for the New York Rangers. But the Oilers are not the Rangers when it comes to structure and team defense. Lehner has had injury issues impede his ability to assert himself as a viable starter, hence his departure from the Ottawa Senators for Buffalo. There's not much of a safety net for the Sabres, given Chad Johnson's difficult turn on with the New York Islanders last season (3.08 GAA, .885 save percentage playing behind Jaroslav Halak). In short, if it's not Lehner, it's trouble time for the Sabres. Give credit to Sharks GM Doug Wilson for waiting on Jones, who was dealt from the Los Angeles Kings to the Boston Bruins, then snapped up by the Sharks for a first-round pick. That's a big price tag for the 6-4 25-year-old who has just 34 games on his NHL résumé. Still, if he's more Ben Bishop than Anders Lindback, the Sharks will be back in the playoffs. As for Lack, the likable former Canuck, the Canes are in transition with incumbent Cam Ward in a contract year and the starting job more or less wide open. Lack is also in a contract year, and the Canes appear to be looking for a goaltender for the future.
4. The 3-on-3 fallout: I didn't hate the shootout as much as, well, everyone else in hockey apparently. But I am intrigued by the notion of the 3-on-3 overtime, even though I'm not sure there is all that much difference on the gimmick scale between it and the shootout. A longtime NHLer raised an interesting issue: Everyone is expecting these overtime sessions to be skilled players skating like dervishes and bringing OT sessions to a close in a flash. And we've seen some of that in the practice games during training camp. But when it matters, with that extra point truly on the line, how different will it be? What if teams are actually better at the shootout or feel they don't match up well against an opponent in overtime and simply try to rope-a-dope the five-minute session? Let's say you're the Devils and you're playing the Pittsburgh Penguins. Throwing Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique and Adam Larsson over the boards against Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang is a no-win situation, right? So, maybe the Devils take a more defensive posture, risk little in the hopes of gaining something in the shootout. In short, maybe we're not headed for the goalfest, end-to-end drama everyone is expecting. And maybe, just maybe, we aren't completely done with the shootout as a final determination of regular-season wins and losses, no matter how much everyone but me apparently hates the process. Or maybe it'll just be 40 seconds of chaos every night before Crosby sets up Kessel for the winner. Either way, interesting times ahead.
5. Believe it or not, the coach's challenge: The revised OT is one of two significant changes to the rules fans will see this fall. The other might have a more subtle but equally important impact on the outcome of games, and that is the coach's challenge. The league has worked diligently to try to make sure as many calls as possible end up being called correctly on the ice. The technology at play in reviewing every goal is unparalleled in the history of the game. But there has been a great gray area in terms of things such as goaltender interference. These plays happen so quickly, and now coaches will get a chance to demand a second look to determine whether an offensive player interfered with a goaltender's ability to stop the puck or it was a defensive player who really caused contact, etc. These plays are significant. Remember the seminal moment in the 2014 Stanley Cup finals between the Rangers and Kings when Dwight King appeared to interfere with Lundqvist on a crucial goal in Game 2, which the Rangers would go on to lose in double overtime? Coaches, provided they have a timeout at their disposal, can call for a review of a goal when goaltender interference might have been a factor, as well as for plays that might have been offside that lead to a goal. Coaches will call for a challenge and specify the play they want reviewed, and the on-ice official will look at various replay angles before rendering a decision, not unlike what is done in baseball and in the NFL (but hopefully without the glacierlike speed the NFL employs). Over the course of a 1,230-game schedule, we're likely talking 10 or so offside plays that lead to goals and roughly the same number of goals that might be affected one way or another by goaltender interference. Small number, but big impact. Just ask the Rangers.
6. How the Kings and Blackhawks will respond: Finally, we're looking forward to seeing what happens with two elite teams with off-ice issues that have clouded and, in some ways, obliterated their significant on-ice accomplishments. Of course, we're talking about the Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks, who have won five Stanley Cups between them since 2010. I've watched with fascination and more than a little admiration how GM Dean Lombardi accepted responsibility for the culture, if I can call it that, in the Kings locker room that saw two players (Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards) charged in drug-related cases and one player (Slava Voynov) charged with domestic violence. Whether it's fair to blame Lombardi or not, the GM has been diligent in hiring staff and reaching out to various groups in the hopes of educating his players. It's a noble goal and one that other teams need to note. What happens now, though? Whether the Kings regain their previous swagger in the face of this scrutiny and soul-searching will be an ongoing storyline. Which leads us to Chicago, where the allegations that Patrick Kane sexually assaulted a young woman at his Buffalo-area home this summer have all but erased any celebratory feelings from the Blackhawks' Cup win in June. At some point the team will move on, whether Kane is in the lineup or not (and it's not a given he will be in the starting lineup when the season starts, pending the fluid nature of the investigation). What will that Chicago team look like, and how different will its relationship be with the fans who have been so supportive of the team? History tells us it's nigh on impossible to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, and this Blackhawks team is going to have to deal with a lot more than Cup champs normally deal with in trying to replicate the feat.